Before we begin, fair warning: I am a massive, unapologetically biased Mass Effect fanboy. It's easily my favorite new game franchise in a long while, and I've spent more time playing and replaying the original trilogy than I care to admit. I have very strong opinions on its world, its story (I legit liked ME3's ending, but I'll discuss that in the comments), and had very high expectations for Mass Effect: Andromeda, the newest chapter in BioWare's space opera RPG. Were those expectations met? Well... yes and no. Let's start from the top:
Sometime during the events of Mass Effect 2, four massive ark ships, each carrying 50,000 individuals from representative races of our galaxy, departs for the distant Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. 600 years pass, and the crew of the human ark Hyperion reaches Andromeda, and things go immediately wrong. The promised "garden world" humanity was supposed to colonize is an uninhabitable hellscape, the first aliens they meet say hello with gunfire, and nobody has any clue where the turian, salarian, or asari arks are. From here, it's up to you, the human Pathfinder, to make things right.
Instead of the entire Milky Way Galaxy from the previous games, Andromeda focuses on one section, the Heleus Cluster, and two new races: the vicious, militaristic kett and the family-oriented angara, who've been stuck fighting the kett for longer than they can remember. Like past games, there are plenty of political entanglements to navigate, like rogue angara who (thanks to the kett) distrust all aliens, humans who want to say "screw the rules" go all Mad Max in this new galaxy, and of course, all the racial tensions from the Milky Way rearing their ugly heads all over again. It's smaller, but feels more intimate--I did miss how special humanity wasn't in the original Mass Effect and getting to learn about all these new, different races, but appreciated how Andromeda very specifically focused on handling the conflict between the angara and the kett.
Putting things bluntly, much of your time in Andromeda is going to be spent doing the same things you did in the previous trilogy: negotiate tense situations, survive double and triple crosses, take sides in a gang war, and help your nakama crew with their personal quests. Between all the big choices and the main quest of finding new homes for 200,000 displaced Milky Way immigrants, there are plenty of smaller, personal errands to take on: get a movie night together for your ship, find the perfect ingredients to create booze, help a particularly doofy colonist find a career path (and not get killed in the process), and of course, try to hook up with everyone that gives you the dialogue option. It's a Mass Effect game, and it's all familiar to a point. It's not all dead-serious survival stress, though, and I really appreciate Andromeda's lighter, more adventurous tone.
As opposed to the huge, sprawling cast we'd grown fond of (to varying degrees) over the initial trilogy, Andromeda starts small, with six squad members and a handful of crewmembers on your new ship, the Tempest. You've got your standard pair of human starting partners, like "I'm really not mad at you, I promise" Cora Harper and "I keep forgetting where I left my shirt" Liam Costa, a grizzled old krogan, a very business-first turian, and an asari Zooey Deschanel. The most interesting new face is Jaal, a member of the new angara race, and getting to know this new alien species on a personal level and earning his trust really adds to the feeling of being a total stranger in this galaxy. Rather than being tied down by "Paragon" or "Renegade" options and limiting responses based on your level, you can choose between Professional, Casual, Emotional, or Logical responses (with the occasional "Impulsive" interrupt) to determine your character's reputation, and a very clear Romantic option during dialogue whenever you feel the need to hit on Space Antonio Banderas Reyes.
The biggest changes come on the other side of the action-RPG coin: the combat. As mentioned in my preview a few weeks back, combat is faster, more streamlined, and expects you to be faster on the draw and smarter with your ability use. Enemy AI isn't the smartest, but the fact that they hit harder and always, always have the numbers advantage make you want to end fights as quickly as possible. Instead of being locked into one class like Soldier or Vanguard for the entire game, you're encouraged to have a mixture of combat, biotic, and tech abilities, and switch classes ("Profiles") as needed for your playstyle or different situations. I ended up favoring the Explorer Profile, which is a perfect balance between the three, and provides strong bonuses across the board, but dedicated individual skillsets like Engineer and Adept gave huge bonuses to specific biotic or tech loadouts. You're given full freedom to build your character's abilities the way you want, and with no level cap (and the usual medbay respec option), you don't have to stress over being stuck with upgrades that aren't working out.
That freedom extends to item creation as well--the sheer amount of junk you collect can seem daunting, but the game's crafting system will cause you to burn through it pretty quickly to create new, better weapons. If you spent a lot of time playing Mass Effect 3's multiplayer, you'll be right at home putting together your kit, weapons, armor, vehicle and all--I'm a big fan of the new melee weapons, like the asari and kett swords. Building planets' livability also allows you to customize what bonuses you get, like regular credit and resource packages, as well as upgrading your APEX strike team.
Feeling a lot like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker's Extra Ops, your APEX teams can be called in to take care of side missions while you're playing the main story. Teams have different perks affecting their chances of mission success, and completing these missions earns you more credits, resources, and occasional weapon and armor drops. Some missions can also be played by you, and that's where Andromeda's addicting multiplayer mode comes in. Just like Mass Effect 3, you'll work together with other players and hold off waves of enemies, but this time you won't need to touch multiplayer to finish the main story (but you'll be missing out-it's fun). While there are a few missing classes (sadly, no more volus adepts), I was able to unlock a few more good ones after only playing a few matches--I'll be coming back pretty regularly to Andromeda's multiplayer just for how damn fun it is to run people over with a krogan.
But even with all the cool new stuff, there's a lot of problems with Andromeda, and not all of them can be fixed with a day-one patch. Character animations are unsteady and jittery, with characters popping into movements or just twitching for no reason during cutscenes. At one point, my Ryder was flirting with Cora, and his head started slowly turning 180 degrees before immediately snapping back to normal, just like I do when talking to women in real life. In a few instances, enemies got stuck in level architecture, completely catching me by surprise when a door started shooting at me. Other enemies wouldn't even respond, just standing in an idle animation while I ran up and punched them repeatedly. In one particularly infuriating issue, a quest update wouldn't trigger, but showed the next step available. When I finished that step, the last one still showed, and blocked me from further progress in the quest.
Andromeda's issues run deeper than just technical screwups. While the overall story is cool, moment-to-moment writing can run from bland to trying-too-hard-to-be-Joss-Whedon dumb. Some characters will constantly speak like they're trying to be the coolest person in the room (hi Liam), and when dealing with more minor technical flaws like characters not even looking at the people they're talking to (just in their general direction), it can really break that feeling of immersion. Back on the characters, there are a few truly tone-deaf attempts to be inclusive and show a better future--the intent is there, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The new, villainous kett--and their dickhead leader the Archon--are more annoying than threatening until the game's halfway point, but I can't stop thinking of the Archon as Sarris from Galaxy Quest.
"YOOOOOU AAAAARE OOOOOUR LAST HOPE"
Even with all that, though, I can't say I had a bad time with Andromeda--at all, really. It's funny how the game's launch kind of parallels the game's story: after a long wait, we're finally here, and nothing's the way it should be. Everything's going wrong, it's not quite matching up to how we expected, and there are a lot of good reasons to be pissed off. Thankfully, sticking with it doesn't just open the door to a rich, fantastic adventure. Mass Effect: Andromeda brings us new friends, new memories, and--most importantly--a new home.
+ Brings you right back to that familiar Mass Effect sweet spot between in-depth roleplay and satisfying action
+ Lots to do across a half-dozen hub worlds and your ship, that never feels like busywork or filler
+ Aims for a lighter tone and mostly succeeds, making its emotional moments stand out more clearly
+ Faster, more intense combat is a step up from previous games
+ "Tone Wheel" adds more flexibility and better roleplay options compared to binary "Paragon/Renegade" responses
+ Fun, addicting multiplayer is also 100% separate from the story mode
+/- Lighter tone does come with some less-than-hilarious attempts at humor and quirkiness, but your mileage may vary
- Constant technical glitches and errors, likely due to me playing a pre-release build, but I'm surprised it's this broken
- Inconsistent UX decisions: why can I equip something from a chest, but not from my inventory?